The Mailbag: The Fire Hose Floods the NewsHour

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

The fire hose of orders, policies, tweets, actions, charges of falsehoods and lies, and media manipulation that is life, so far, under the Trump administration and its adversaries continued into week two. Mail to my inbox is extremely heavy and almost all of it focuses in one way or another on the five weekday night PBS NewsHour and the two weekend programs. That is not surprising because the news we all hear every day, sometimes several times a day, is news that we are not used to hearing.

Where is Downton Abbey when we need it?

Two days ago, I wrote about the NewsHour interview with Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway that had attracted scores of emails. Today’s mailbag focuses mostly on an interview with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump adviser, on the president’s executive order on Jan. 27 on immigration. But there are lots of other issues and viewer observations posted here as well. So this, like some of the other postings in the past month, is a long one, very long.

But the idea here is to provide a fair and representative sampling of viewer observations on a range of subjects. The problem for me is that events are coming out of that fire hose so fast that it is hard to keep pace. So I’m usually a few days behind events to allow sorting out the emails, assessing them, trying to get responses (not very successfully at times) from an also busy NewsHour, and getting them posted in reasonable time.

The mail this week, as it was last week, is mostly critical—both of the NewsHour and the people who speak for the Trump administration. This also is not surprising since the country is bitterly divided and spokesmen for an administration are going to hear from those who oppose it. Rather than attempt to provide some broad assessment, I’ve posted ombudsman’s notes with my observations beneath several of the emails.

I would add one general point. While it is always possible to have fuller and more aggressive challenges on the air and in real time by well-prepared questioners, it is also crucial, valuable and necessary to hear the views and explanations offered by the administration and the NewsHour is doing the right thing by inviting them on to the program.

Here Are the Letters

We are passionate NewsHour fans. Aside from my personal opinion, the Jan. 30 aired interview of Kris Kobach [Kansas secretary of state who served as an adviser to Trump] carried at least one untruth that I know. The Boston Marathon bombers, Tsarnaev brothers, were not born in any of the 7 targeted Middle East countries. They came as boys w/their parents to Cambridge MA from a former Soviet Socialist Republic. Because of unfortunate legal situations, first the older brother, then the younger became radicalized here in America. The interviewee's alternative facts should have been disputed.

Scarborough, ME

(Ombudsman’s Note: Kobach said, “The two Boston Marathon bombers originally came into the United States through the refugee program.” It’s complicated but the Tsarnaev parents and one of their sons actually came to the U.S. on tourist visas from Dagestan in the Russian Federation and then asked for and eventually were granted political asylum here and then brought the other son over. So that’s a different path from refugees. One of the sons, Dzokhar, became a naturalized U.S. citizen.)

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PBS has a great reputation, but I think you need to pay attention to vetting the words of those who are guests. For example, Kris Kobach claimed that The Boston Marathon bombers were refugees, but their family actually entered the U.S. on tourist visas. I maybe a bit paranoid, but it seems like Trump supporters tend to be disingenuous on many of the important issues we are facing. You do not have to start an argument with them, but you could add an afterthought clarifying the truth when your guest misleads or lies.


Lots More on Kobach

I believe the NewsHour that ran on 1/30/2017 may have been the worst I have ever seen. John Yang reported on what Sean Spicer said in his press briefing without any countervailing information, which was freely available on other news sites. Judy Woodruff interviewed Madeleine Albright without once asking her for clarification, in detail, about Obama actions with respect to immigration from Iraq and the other six countries in President Trump's order. Judy's co-host [Miles O’Brien] interviewed Kris Kobach without any apparent preparation to counter Kobach's claims. The show was what some people would call "stenography journalism." I hope PBS has not been cowed by the Trump Administration. I hope this drivel is not an indication of what's to come.

David Datz, Altadena, CA

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Kris Kobach is a known zealot with hard-right xenophobic views. He is not an expert in immigration law, nor is he an expert in international human rights law. He has a specific political agenda. Unfortunately, Miles O'Brien, a talented science reporter, does not have the appropriate background for this subject. He totally failed to challenge Kobach on his factual allegations and legal theories. Iran--contrary to what Kobach said--is NOT a site of ISIS activity. In fact, Iran has no ISIS presence and is an enemy of ISIS. There is no meaningful problem of non-state actor terrorism in Iran. The Iranian regime -- not its people -- has a monopoly on state violence. Terrorism is essentially non-existent among the civilian population in Iran.

That is not the case for the other six countries, where there are problems with terrorism. However, the refugees and immigrants and other visitors from those countries are rigorously vetted, contrary to the myth spread by the administration and Kobach, who is allied with them. This kind of reporting causes one to wonder whether Bannon's attempts to intimidate the media are getting to you.

Linda Swanson, Larkspur, CA

(Ombudsman’s Note: The viewer is correct in terms of Iran. That country is, indeed, an enemy of ISIS. But Iran was never mentioned by Kobach in this interview. In fact, only Iraq and Somalia of the seven predominately Muslin countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen—that were singled out in President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order were mentioned in the interview. But Kobach did say, without mentioning any individual country of the seven, that these places are “the hotbeds of terrorism. They include places where ISIS controls foreign territory.” But ISIS does not control territory in Iran and that could have been pointed out.)

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I was saddened and angered last eve as I watched the NewsHour (Jan 30). They were interviewing Kris Kobach, Republican of Kansas and Trump advisor, about the Immigration mess of this week. BUT, SIR, they were NOT interviewing him about what he is INFAMOUS FOR--The CORRUPT "Cross-check" SCAM--the Republican scam that took a few millions of voters (mainly democrat) off the rolls in many Midwest states--All of It illegal and immoral. The News media won't touch "cross-check."  Why? Why? It's how they 'stole' a few states for Trump with scam of saying they were registered in 2 states and gave TRUMP the excuse to LIE and say that millions voted 'illegally' for Hillary. Why did the NewsHour not mention this about dishonest Kris Kobach? Why did they give this corrupt hack legitimacy? Why?

Seattle, WA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I assume it was because the subject of the interview was the president’s executive order on immigration, which was the big news of the moment, and because the interview was intended to get “a different point of view” than presented by the previous guest, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.)

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I was very disappointed to see Kris Kobach on PBS News today, representing a voice supporting President Trump's decision to bar people from seven mostly Muslim countries, from coming to the U.S. I understand that political conservatives have the right to speak, but Kobach is the person who invented the Mexican Wall, as well as the idea that Mexico must pay for it. He is also the 'king' of voter suppression in this country, having invented, and still is inventing, new methods denying the vote. The victims just happen to be preponderantly African Americans and Latinos. At least if anyone as extreme as Kobach is to appear, his far reaching stand on the issues must be told.

Ellyn Spencer, Haverhill, MA

The Saudis Escape

We watch your program on a regular basis. We were very disappointed in the weak interview given by O’Brien to Kobach tonight. He did not drill down deep enough into the questions. For example, why isn’t Saudi Arabia on the restricted list of countries allowed to enter the US when they were responsible for 9/11? We need hard questions answered in times like this, not simply acting nice and not drilling down further into important stories. Our democracy is at stake. We look forward to deeper interviews.


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Mr. Kobach, KS secretary of state, included numerous statements which appear to be false or unsupportable during his interview tonight with Miles O'Brien. I would appreciate if PBS were able to fact check statements of those they interview and provide factually accurate information on the PBS news hour. It is not helpful to allow people to make false statements as if they are true without PBS clarifying which information is completely factually incorrect. This will erode the integrity of PBS news. We will stop watching and lose the last news outlet we had left. Please don't pass on propaganda or lies without comment or dispute in the misguided attempt at airing both sides of an argument... no matter which government official is making such false claims, a lie is a lie. That is not news.

Vacaville, CA

(Ombudsman’s Note: It is helpfulto me and readers of this columnwhen viewers charging false statements provide some examples.)

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In this new era would it be possible to have fact check statements a bit more concurrent with the speaker's comments? For example, Kris Kobach was just interviewed at length and the graphic immediately follow was numeric listing the numbers of Christians and number of Muslim refugees admitted last year. Since Kobach made several verifiably false statements, I would have found objective facts that refuted his contentions much more meaningful.

Ellen Dumesnil, San Francisco, CA

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I have just watched Miles O'Brien interview the Kansas Secretary of State regarding Mr. Trump's executive order on immigration. That Mr. O'Brien could let stand the assertion that "many...many" terrorists have entered the US under the guise of "refugees" is inexcusable. I don't expect the main stream media to speak truth to power...they are Beholden to their business advertisers. I do expect PBS to stand up to outright lies being spoken by a guest. For God's sake...some news organization to have some integrity.

Michael Dalton, White Plains, NY

(Ombudsman’s Note: Two days after the Kobach interview, Judy Woodruff interviewed Vice President Mike Pence and during that interview—which will be the subject of another mailbag soon—Woodruff also brought up the immigration executive order and introduced her question this way: “We looked this up and since 2001, 9/11, 82 percent of the fatal attacks by Islamic extremists in this country were committed by either legal permanent residents or citizens. The rest were committed by people who were not from these seven countries that this ban applies to.”

It would have been good, in my view, to have done that research before the interview with Kobach. This is something that I, and others, have stressed before: the need for intense preparation is absolutely essential since the Trump spokespeople are very fast and good.)

~ ~ ~

Was there something wrong with Miles O'Brien and Judy Woodruff this evening (1.30.17)? Interviews, respectively, of Kris Kobach and Madeline Albright were a mere half-step above "soft toss. No substantive questions, no calling out lies, (an absolute must with Kobach), and in all, a waste of time.

Paul Franzmann, Walla Walla, WA

(Ombudsman’s Note: I sort of agree with this but, as I seem to say often, it’s complicated. I thought Secretary Albright’s answers were the problem here rather than Woodruff’s questions. Some of her answers struck me as hard to follow such as trying to explain the difference with what the Obama administration had done with respect to certain countries, while others fell short, such as a failure to differentiate the role of President Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod, who sat quietly in the back row on occasion in National Security Council meetings as opposed to the high-powered, front-row seat given to President Trump’s extremely controversial chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.

On the Kobach interview, I sort of feel for Miles O’Brien, one of several staffers sitting in as co-anchor in recent months with Woodruff. O’Brien is a superb science reporter and has an excellent presence. Should one of his first guest appearance assignments have been on foreign policy and immigration and up against a very polished advocate in Kobach? Still, I thought O’Brien asked good questions and contributed to understanding the two sides to these issues.)

All Those Faces, Voices, and Other Stuff

It would be very good if you discontinue the tryouts for Gwen Ifill's position. We all know that she cannot be replaced. However, you have many qualified persons from which to choose to fill this slot. Let's get on with it and not put good people, both contenders and viewers, and Judy, through more of this torture.

Jean Chamberlin, San Diego, CA

~ ~ ~

I believe Thursday (1/26) evening's NewsHour took a very large step in the direction of fairness and balance in the very same sense in which Fox News claims those terms. The story about [Mexican] President Nieto's cancelling the scheduled meeting with President Trump - which, notably, the Trump administration falsely claimed to be a mutual decision - and the potential consequences was singularly unfair and unbalanced.

How is it possible that the producer of that segment did not know (or care?) that the libertarian / pro-corporate Heritage Foundation (Mr. Carafano) and the pro-corporate/libertarian American Enterprise Institute (Mr. Noriega) are virtually univocal on most issues, especially those dealing with trade. I don't expect PBS stories to include opinion with a particularly liberal bent, but I do expect important stories to reflect greater diversity.

William Politt, Weare, NH

~ ~ ~

I was very disturbed last week when there was a segment on Mexico where the only guests were from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Where was the balance in this? Then, tonight [Jan. 30] Miles O'Brien interviewed the Attorney [Kris Kobach] and no one else. He asked one question on why the 7 countries were selected which have not been the source of terrorists with no the 17 of 19 Saudis who attacked the WTC?? I really feel the NewsHour is trying not to alienate this administration by beginning to sound like Fox. I have been a New Hour regular for thirty years. This is very disturbing.

Nancy Hutchens, Bloomington, IN

~ ~ ~

My wife and I really enjoy watching the NewsHour. But one thing that continues to bother me and many others I know is the use of the term "alt right" for white supremacist (in reference to Steve Bannon in particular). I think the term used on NewsHour (and other news outlets) leads to the normalization of this racist world view. Most people have a more neutral view of "alt right" than they would if they heard it as what it really is - a movement of racist, bigoted, mostly misogynist white supremacists. Please do not let the abnormal nature of this presidency get normalized by using whitewashed terminology. Thank you for your attention to my concerns.

Stephen Ingram, Bishop, CA

It's Not Alt-Right

PLEASE stop using the term "Alt-right" in your reporting. That is Bannon and others' self-labeling. The correct term is "white supremacist" or "white nationalist". Don't give them the cover of their own misleading i.d. and hubris. Keep your audiences on NPR and PBS accurately and truthfully informed.

David Keller, Petaluma, CA

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I'm hoping one of your newscasters will ask why the Trump administration has never expressed concerns about our "safety" from US citizens (i.e. Dylan Roof, Timothy McVeigh, Aurora theater shooter, Sandy Elementary Shooter, CO high school shooters). I'm hoping a credible news organization will ask some harder question about our country's policy directions for 'protecting' the American public. Defenders of Trump’s actions keep talking about our safety-- but no one ever asks how that applies internally!

Edith Rusch, Portland, OR

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While I agree that we've a truly divided country, I've not seen any evidence since your post that Donald Trump and his administration have any aim other than to further divide, inflame, and sow chaos. So while I agree that the 4th Estate is extraordinarily important during these times, the only solution to our current dilemma ultimately rests with our courts and a Congress that is willing to step up and principally oppose the worse moves by an extremist Trump Administration, which, in my opinion, poses an existential threat to our democracy and its institutions of acceptable behavior and norms.

Donna Williams, Macon, GA

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PLEASE make an effort to follow the President and the administration’s highest officials as they attempt to consolidate power into key positions within this government through shock and awe tactics meant to divide our attention from what is actually happening. The power consolidation part is mostly already complete, so please do your best to assign resources to cover what these people are actually doing. Not only are they consolidating power while we fuss about less important issues they have conjured, but they are finding out who is "with them" and who is "against them" within the walls of government and taking action. We rely on you to ask the questions in the face of SEVERE condemnation and provide us data so that we citizens can truly know what is affecting us. Not what the administration tells us is affecting us.

Longmont, CO

And, Finally...

Please call out Sean Spicer whenever he claims that the media is not listening to America. Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, and to claim that Trump is popularly elected is a lie. He won the electoral college and thus the election; he did not win the vote. When Mr. Spicer or any administration mouthpiece claims that they understand "the people," they are lying. This is propaganda, and must be called such.

Darrin Schuck, Upland, CA

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I would like to comment on the term "going forward" this term is used ad nauseum in news casts, interviews etc. I am an old guy and can remember Walter Cronkite, Edward R Murrow, and Huntley and Brinkley. I believe they could refer to the future without using that term. It is like teenagers who use the term "Like." Like you know these people like can't like go 2 minutes without like using the term "going forward". Like they don't know like any other way to like refer to the future. They probably won't change but like whatever.


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Not a complaint here, just a suggestion. On tonight's show (1/31) you had a story on women orchestra conductors, hyped with the phrase: "a job women rarely hold." I know you tilt toward promoting women and girls, but how about a nod to boys and men where it's really needed - elementary education. There's a job men rarely hold and it might be bringing down U.S. education all the way up to high school dropouts and gender ratios in college.

Dan Johnsen, South Kingstown, RI

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During a recent PBS News Hour, the analyst named five states with Democratic governors but failed to mention Washington State (Jay Inslee, Democrat) in his list.


Posted on Feb. 2, 2017 at 5:27 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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